Cultural appropriation appears to be a hot issue right now in international adoption circles. This is not something that just started nor is unique to international adoption. What’s new is that it is viewed among some young adult adoptee groups as a negative rather than a positive. They seem to have latched onto it as a new source of blame. Adoptive parents have done wrong not only by removing adopted children from their birth culture, but also by appropriating areas of their birth cultures into their adoptive family life.
Cultural appropriation is the way the world grows smaller. When we eat sushi, we have culturally appropriated Japan. When we send our kids to Tae Kwon Do, we have appropriated Korean culture.
The child adopted in previous generations was raised as a member of the new family and expected to assimilate into that family’s culture, leaving behind everything of their family of origin. In my parents generation, if a couple adopted a child from another culture, there was no effort made to educate the child about their country of origin. This pretty much followed the trend among new immigrants who desperately wanted to be seen as “all-American,” not used-to-be-Polish or Hungarian. My husband’s grandparents immigrated and his American-born parents wanted nothing to do with Polish language or foods. As is typical, it was the second generation Americans, those born to American-raised parents, who then look back with longing for the “good old ways.”
I wonder when I look around at our increasingly mobile society, how many individuals have the luxury to stay in one place their entire lives, to grow in the same culture they were born to. People no longer land a job right out of high school at the same place their father worked and work the same job until they retire at 62! Today’s average worker changes jobs 10 to 15 times over the course of a career! Increasingly, promotion, even promotion within the same company also requires relocation, not just across the country, but across the globe. My cousin Chuck was unique in my family because he worked 22 years for IBM, but most of those years were spent in Japan. In search of education, and employment opportunities, my husband and I have lived in NJ, AZ, PA, VA, MD, NH, VT, MN and NC. Though all in America, the culture in each of these place is a little different. Like most Americans, we have kept the parts of our shared culture that were important and adapted to our new surroundings as needed.
But, what exactly is culture and to whom does it “belong?”
Culture defines boundaries and it is the way a group of people passes down a world view. In a time of tribal identity, it was a way to define who was friend and who was foe. In time of famine, who do we let into the city gates and who do we lock out? What once had meaning in a culture may get handed down, but without the original meaning. In Croatia, where my grandfather lived, the women of each village use a different pattern of red embroidery on their skirts. You could tell where a woman was from (Is she one of “us?”) just by her skirt!
Cultural competency is a survival skill. It helps us know how to act in every situation. But cultural competency is necessary in the culture one lives, not the culture one came from. If one immigrates to a new culture but does not adapt to that culture, rather clings instead to the old ways of the former culture that are more familiar, one does not survive-at least not well.
As an Anthropology major, I learned that culture is not static but an ever evolving social construct. Our sense of identity and how we fit into society comes largely from our family stories and our community experiences. And yet, if that communal narrative does not adapt and change with newly evolved threats, the culture dies.
I grew up in a family with a strong sense of culture. My father’s father had founded a Croatian cultural society and participated in singing and dancing folk songs and playing traditional instruments as a family. But my mother’s family was Irish and German. So, I learned to eat braunschweiger and onion sandwiches on a poppyseed roll and sing Irish lullabies to the babies. I thought of culture as wealth: something that enriched rather than limited one’s life. I didn’t lose my mother’s culture when I watched a Croatian folk group dance nor did I have a sense of betraying my father’s family if I sang Irish lullabies. I felt richer because I embraced all of these cultural traditions.
Before I married into my husband’s family, his grandmothers schooled me in all the important parts of Polish cooking. I got gold stars in babka and pierogi, and a passable grade in galabki and Chrusty. We joke that I nearly didn’t get approved for marriage because I refused to learn to make czernina (soup made from the blood of a live duck) something they considered an annual Christmas necessity.
The truth of the matter is that I am entirely American. I have never even set foot on the the soils of these countries of my grandparents. I am neither Croation nor Irish or German. I am American. I would not fit in a Croatian village any more than my Chinese born adopted children would fit in China today. We celebrate the trappings of culture, keeping favorite family recipes and holiday traditions, but because we are American and because culture is a living breathing thing, we scuttle the stuff that has no meaning for us. All cultures do this. Chinese people, even those living in China, no longer break and bind the feet of young girls or arrange their marriages at birth.
As my generation began adopting children, we thought it was important to give children a sense of pride in their national origin. Maybe we overdid it? We sent our adopted kids to language schools and ethnic dance classes. We made an effort to find dolls that looked just like our ethnically-different-from-us children. Whole families participated in cultural festivals and ethnic holidays that were native to the adopted child’s country of origin, but usually not to the adoptive family. Some American Born Chinese friends once commented that we were more Chinese than they were! Typical of most immigrants, the parents of these ABC had been eager to assimilate into American culture. We have Chinese silk paintings and calligraphy decorating our walls and they had a portrait of Elvis.
As you can see, my husband and I are guilty of cultural appropriation:
We celebrate Chinese New Year and Moon Festival in our house. We eat Chinese food several times a week. My kids snack on ramen noodles as if they were Twinkies.
These angry, young adult adoptees contend that their rights as a child to remain in their birth culture were never considered. They feel they would have been better off, less socially awkward had they remained in their native countries. Living among people of a different race and a different culture has been for them–problematic.
The world is changing. Our families and communities are expanding rapidly! It is interesting to note that Cultures that have migrated–diaspora–change less than the home base. Preserving the culture “just the way it was” is more important to those who move away than to those who are immersed in it as it continues to breathe and grow. It is one way that we humans resist change and hold on to the familiar in a world that is swiftly spinning beyond our control. The truth of the matter is that our culture, globally, is evolving so rapidly that everyone (at least everyone who pauses long enough to consider such things) feels a little disconnected from their roots. The culture these adoptees were born into twenty years ago is not the same culture that exists today. They can never go back to the China of their earliest memories or of their dreams; not because they have been so Americanized, but because that culture no longer exists! While they were away, China or Guatemala, Korea or Haiti have changed. If you walk the streets of these countries today, you will see people dressed in western business suits, carrying briefcases and talking into cell phones. The culture of their memories and fantasies no longer exists. And, I say fantasies because I suspect the culture constructed by birth parents to give their children a sense of ethnic pride, is something we have idealized for them. It never, in reality ever existed. We have kept the good parts and scuttled the parts we felt were destructive. We told them stories about birth mothers who lovingly placed them in places where they would be found because they could not care for them. We left out any possibility of birth mothers who might not have wanted them because we found that thought too painful to bear. We insisted to ourselves and to our children that birth mothers were victims of circumstances and given a better world would have kept their children. We place the onus on economics or social constraints, never on personal inconvenience. The truth is, for many of us, we simply don’t know why our children were abandoned by their families of origin. We only knew that they needed a family and we needed a child to love.
Two of my children, adopted from China, like my grandparents and all adoptees born in another country–are immigrants to America. There is a tendency among immigrants to look back at the old days with nostalgia and forget the reasons that drove them to America. Trips back to “the old country” seldom live up to the expectations of the second generation. My grandfather never went back to the old country. It was the second generation that looked back with nostalgia and said, “Look what you stole from us by coming to America!” After he retired, my uncle visited the old family homestead in Croatia and commented that it was “a real dump! How did they raise all those kids in that small house?”
Despite the good stuff they tried to bring with them, there were reasons my family and my husband’s family immigrated to America. Potato famines and insurrections, abject poverty and world wars drove various relatives to the land of opportunity.
On the one hand, I totally agree that It would certainly have been easier for adopted children to have grown into a sense of cultural identity had they remained in their countries of origin—if the culture of those countries was accepting of single parent families or multi-race children or differently abled children or second daughters. In fact, the changes I do see happening in those cultures are largely at the hands of adoptive parents who have remained connected with the birth cultures and formed organizations to reach out and benefit the children deemed “unadoptable.” They have started schools to educate handicapped children who are not allowed in public schools. Adoptive parents have started foundations to provide corrective surgeries for babies with disorders that mark them as outcast in their home cultures. They have now infused these birth cultures with western values of inclusion and opportunity for all.
Our global understanding of culture is expanding into broader and broader circles of inclusion. Like a bride who learns to cook her husband’s favorite ethnic foods, most of the adoptive parents I know have spent a great deal of time and effort not only bringing their children into their own culture, but extending themselves into the culture of the child. We have so much Chinese art in our house that my eldest son, product of my husband’s and my gene pool once asked, “Where’s the Polish Art?” We have paid for Chinese schools and friends have sent their kids to Korean camps, Djembe drum lessons and Guatemalan folk arts classes, not only for their adopted child but for other members of the family as well.
Another error I see in this thinking by adoptees, is that one culture is mutually exclusive of another. That in gaining America, they have lost their countries of origin. I would counter that adoptive families become a very real, multi-ethnic celebration of the expanding global family.
The angry adopted young adults refer to cultural appropriation with a sense of disgust, as if adoptive parents have stolen something from them or kidnapped them from something that is rightfully theirs. In reality, they have likely appropriated much of American culture that they are not aware of! These young adults with college degrees who would not have been allowed to go to elementary school in their birth cultures because of social status or gender have no trouble speaking out and claiming rights that their birth countries would have denied them without the intervention of American and European adoptive families.
The truth is that the life of an orphan in these places is not hopeful. The prospects for education and career, quality of medical care, indeed the prospects for survival are quite limited for most of them had they remained in their birth culture. The children who need homes today do not have time to wait for their cultures to grow toward greater acceptance. Their only hope of education, life-saving surgeries, healthful nutritional options and emotional stability was and still remains; adoption.
Yes, I strongly agree that it would have been best if these babies had been able to stay in their countries of origin had the social network existed to care for them. I am not alone. This is why so many adoptive parents continue to support efforts in their children’s countries of origin to support single mothers, to encourage in-country adoptions, add staff to orphanages and “hugging grannies” for nurseries, build and train staff for early childhood education centers, or provide education fees for school children and life altering surgeries. It is not only a way to give back, but a way to alter the culture just enough to assure that orphans don’t need to be adopted to other countries in order to live productive lives.
Personally, I think our family and other adoptive families are a little richer for appropriating a bit of Chinese or Korean or Ethiopian or Brazilian culture into our home and one day, I hope the kids see this as the gift we intended it to be.